Former Burmese migrant ‘broker’ unloads on shakedown of poor migrants fleeing Thailand floods
BANGKOK – “They are using the opportunity (provided by the floods) to exploit the workers”, says *Aung, slamming Thai immigration officials and Burmese brokers for extorting Burmese migrants who have been fleeing flooding Thailand. “I have never seen anything so bad as this”, said the man.
Aung used to work as a broker in Thailand, part of a sometimes-reviled network who, for an often substantial fee, help migrants find work and living quarters in Thailand, but often collude with traffickers in Burma and Thailand, and with brutally-exploitative employers in Thailand.
Leaked information from inside the immigration detention centre near Mae Sot, the main land border crossing between Thailand and Burma, suggests that 30,000 Burmese trying to head home have been detained at the centre during recent weeks, as floods close factories and inundate their often ramshackle homes.
Those with full official migrant worker accreditation in Thailand generally can do their border crossing without excessive trouble. However, for those whose ID only permits them live and work inside the area where their employment is based, or for those without documentation, fleeing the floods is an ordeal in itself.
“In Samut Sakhon (a fishing port 40 minutes southwest of Bangkok and home to tens of thousands of Burmese who work in the fisheries sector) brokers charge 2400 baht for Burmese who want to travel to Mae Sot”, said the ex-broker Aung.
“They then load 150 people onto a truck with room for no more than 50”, before making the 8-9 hour road trip to the border.
There, those without papers are detained by police and immigration officials, and can be “fined” for breaches of their work permits, before being deported overnight across the border into Burma, easy prey for traffickers such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), an Karen ethnic militia affiliated to the Burmese army.
However, it is not just the informal shakedowns that are irking Burmese migrants and those working to assist them. Aung says that all formal costs for migrants wanting to return home should be waived during the flood crisis, not only as a charitable gesture but as an additional preventive measure against traffickers and unscrupulous brokers.
“Removing all formal costs for migrants returning home, whether re-entry permit costs or travel costs, must be immediate. Otherwise migrants who have suffered once in this disaster will suffer again, at increased risk of trafficking and debt bondage”, he said.
The Burmese authorities have protected key gates during daytime, and have been providing food, water transport onward to Pa’an inside Burma, as well 4500kyat to the returning migrants, according to sources at the border.
However now it appears that deportations from the Thailand side at Mae Sot are taking place during night-time, according to separate anonymously-provided accounts from the border area provided to The Irrawaddy. “Night time deportations are dangerous, international standards dictate deportations should be taking place only in the day. Night time deportations have to stop.” said Andy Hall, a migration policy expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok.
In areas of flood-devastated Pathum Thani, a suburb on the northern outskirts of the vast Thailand capital, mafia figures are keeping Burmese migrants as virtual prisoners in waist-high water, now sitting stagnant and stinking for up to two weeks in places. “If they want to leave, they have to pay”, said another NGO worker who helps Burmese migrants in the area, where only 5-10% of the Burmese migrants usually living and working there now remain. “But many have no valid papers”, said the NGO staffer.
However it is not just shady mafia figures who are trying to take advantage of migrants desperation t make a quick flood-related buck. “One employer in Pathum Thani wanted 7500 baht from migrants who needed their passports back to try go home to Burma”, said the same source. Thai employers often hold their Burmese or other migrant staff passports as a means of control. “I spoke to this man on October 29-30, and he eventually agreed not to charge them for giving them their passports back”.
With 2-3 million Burmese migrants in Thailand, there are around 1 million living in the flood-affected areas, according to the Thailand Labour Ministry. “Nobody really knows how many migrants are affected by the floods”, says Hall. “Some say 200,000, some say at least double that”. There appears to be only one shelter for Burmese migrants affected by Thailand’s worst flooding in over a half-century however, with between 200-400 people taking refuge at the Wat Rai Khing in Nakhon Pathom outside Bangkok.
For Aung, the former broker, the situation is too much. “I am now about to cross the border and am heading back to Yangon”, he later told The Irrawaddy by phone.Show